- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning trotted onto the Super Bowl field, extended a pregame pat to his opponent, Tom Brady, and watched the quarterback of the New England Patriots recoil as if someone had just tried to serve him a subpoena, a Spygate tape, or both.
The Fox cameras caught the spurned Manning doing a double take over his right shoulder pad before accepting a consolation handshake from New England's nice-guy backup, Matt Cassel.
Was Brady guilty of poor sportsmanship, of using body language to make the point that Eli was no Peyton?
Or was Brady simply honoring an article of old-school faith, and declaring that the Super Bowl is no place for even a fleeting moment of fraternization?
"I didn't see it, or notice anything about it," Manning said Monday as he headed out of the New York Giants' training facility. "I wasn't going out there to shake Tom's hand anyway; I was just jogging by. I know some people talked about it, but I never paid any attention to it."
Manning didn't recall much of what Brady said to him right after the Giants delivered the dynastic quarterback and his dynastic coach, Bill Belichick, their most crushing defeat to date. But months later, the next time Brady saw Manning, "Tom was very kind and complimentary," Eli recalled. "He's always been good to me."
Whatever people saw or didn't see on the videotape of the Manning-Brady encounter, or non-encounter, in the hour leading up to what Giants owner John Mara called the greatest triumph in franchise history, this much is clear:
If Eli didn't have Brady's complete respect before Super Bowl XLII, he has it now.
Manning was the master of Brady's biggest disaster, the MVP of the game that cost the sport's most recognizable star a chance to match the four titles won by his idol, Joe Montana, and a chance to go down as the only quarterback to finish a season 19-0.
Brady's Patriots haven't won a playoff game since. Of course, Manning's Giants haven't, either.
But when they meet in a meaningful game for the first time since that epic night in the Arizona desert, Brady and Manning won't be starting out on a field tilted heavily toward the much higher profile quarterback. If Brady is still Brady, a mortal Hall-of-Fame lock, Eli is no longer the goofy kid brother just along for the ride.
Manning isn't merely a franchise player because his $100 million contract says so. He's acting the part, too.
The Giants might be 5-2 with a two-game lead in the NFC East, but they can't run the ball against anyone. They enter the hellish portion of their schedule with a legitimate shot at winning the division for two distinct reasons:
They rush the passer, and they have a passer who never acts rushed.
"There's never a time in the huddle where he's yelling or trying to tell us something that he sees," Victor Cruz said of Manning. "As far as his demeanor, it's always even keeled and never bent out of shape.
"He's not frantic and he's making plays, and it's great to see that you have a quarterback like that who can remain that confident even in tough situations. It keeps me calm."
It keeps the Giants receivers as steady and consistent as their room-temperature quarterback.
Manning will show up in Foxborough with a 102.1 passer rating, nine points north of his career high and third best in the league, behind Aaron Rodgers and Brady. Eli's honored his pledge that he wouldn't be the 25-interception guy he was last year, throwing only five picks against 13 touchdown passes, and he's supported the summertime claim he made to ESPN New York 1050's Michael Kay, when Manning violated his own code of say-nothing conduct and declared himself an elite quarterback very much in Brady's league.
Manning has advanced his standing as the NFL's own Mr. October, improving his record in the month to 23-5, the best in the Super Bowl era, and his string of endgame rallies has left him the leading fourth-quarter passer in the game.
"He is playing very well," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said, "and we expect that to remain that way."
Asked to identify the specific Manning quality that has impressed him the most, Coughlin answered, "I would say he is controlled." At the start of the season, given the injuries on defense and the apparent dearth of playmakers on Eli's side of the ball, Manning had reason to lose control.
But Giants general manager Jerry Reese had told the quarterback he expected 2011 to be the best of his eight seasons, told Eli the team was his, all his. Manning listened to him. He's on track to shatter the franchise record for passing yards (Kerry Collins, 4,073) and whatever remains of the notion that his leadership skills still need work.
Reese had charged to Eli to make his presence felt in all corners of the locker room, and the Manning patriarch, Archie, had predicted that Eli would grow as a leader in New York the way he'd grown as one at Ole Miss.
"I don't think it's ever going to be a situation of him yelling and screaming at guys," Mara said, "but he's certainly been leading by example. Eli works harder than anyone on the team, he's always here looking at tape, and he does a lot of quiet things with teammates that you don't see on TV."
Like the times during the lockout when Manning ran his own passing camp, and saw an opportunity to embolden a teammate in need.
As an undrafted college kid trying desperately to earn a Super Bowl MVP's trust, Cruz appreciated the text messages from Manning that said, "Good work this week. Let's keep working. Let's keep getting better every day. Just use this time to perfect your craft and familiarize yourself 100 percent with the offense."
One day after he caught the touchdown pass from Manning that spared the Giants the indignity of losing to Miami, Cruz said those texts "just made me believe that he believed in me and helped me stay focused."
Manning has that stabilizing effect on the Giants. They know they can rely on a quarterback who's about to make his 111th consecutive start, tied for fourth all-time with New England's most famous dimpled face.
Nobody can spell "elite" without Eli, not anymore. Manning has earned Tom Brady's respect, if not his participation in a pregame handshake.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.
If Eli didn't have Tom Brady's respect before Super Bowl XLII, he has it now.